A passion of mine has been to step alongside others as they adjust to new cultural and living situations. This was part of my work with Mercy Ships, a global charity working primarily in West Africa. My work there meant that when I moved to East Texas in 2014, I came prepared for the transition experience toting a wealth of knowledge about cross-cultural relocation with its potential pitfalls and delights.
During the first month or so after arriving, one of the things I often found myself doing was looking for a point of reference, something even tenuously familiar that I could relate to and where I could feel a little at home. There was nothing.
From the way people dressed to what they ate, or how much body weight and hair product was considered attractive, there were many reminders that people would view me as an outsider. Me—with my slightly-underweight frame, flyaway thin hair, and Euro-style dress code.
I experienced a delayed reaction to culture shock, which is often the case with me. It was nearly five months before I felt the first tremors of shock waves wobble my inner world.
It was December. I was shopping at Walmart, which makes me feel like crying at the best of times. I felt overwhelmed by the amount of people and the choice of groceries. This is not an uncommon feeling for those who have worked in developing nations and then are transplanted back to a more developed environment. I was prepared for this. I abandoned my empty cart and returned to the car to regroup my frayed nerves and will. I felt sad and wanted to cry, but tears would not come. After several minutes I returned to the store to continue shopping. In no time the process of attrition set in, forcing me to leave the store once again. A short breathing break gave me what I needed to go back in again. About half way through, my resolve plummeted to the basement. I abandoned the cart, half-full of shopping, and headed back to my car, this time with no intention of finishing the job.
I just want to go home, I thought to myself.
It dawned on me then that I no longer knew where home was. Like other global nomads, I can feel at home everywhere and nowhere. Tears pricked behind my eyes but still did not fall.
That first winter was long and dark, but my optimism and enthusiasm for novelty kept picking me up and carrying me through. At the end of our first year, we moved again. It was an anticipated and local move out of Mercy Ships housing and into a place of our own. It was both exciting and stressful, and at this point I began the descent into the nadir of what I have come to view as my desert experience.
In addition to the accompanying emotional and spiritual dryness, I noticed that physically I felt like a parched stick. I felt increasingly isolated but did not want to go out or connect with people. Even if I would have had the energy to work, my annual earnings were severely limited because of my visa status. I longed for familiar heart-friends who knew me well and provided a sense of “home.” I felt hollow and lonely.
During spiritual desert times, I have heard people say that God feels far away. They talk of an increased thirst for a sense of God’s presence, for some drop of divine salve that will quench or ease their parched spirit. For me, God’s presence and kindness felt mostly near. Many followers of Jesus might say that should be enough, because God is enough.
Except that I found myself saying, “He’s not enough.”
Where does one go when it feels like God is not enough?
In the last decade or so, I have had a great life. I have traveled and worked abroad. I have met interesting and eclectic people. I have learned new things and have had breathtaking adventures and hair-raising experiences—all of which have worked their transformative magic upon me. If I died today, or became terminal, I would leave this world saying, “I have lived a full life.”
So why did I find myself malcontent? Why did I long for more?
Halfway through my second year, a compassionate therapist responded generously to my request for help and began working with me. She helped me put words and contextual understanding to my experience. Part of the issue related to my physical health, but as time went by, I began to have increasing clarity about my transition experience. Transitions—even positive ones—are a grief experience. There must be a coming-to-terms with the absence of much-loved familiar people, places, routines, and feelings.
When dealing with extreme change, one needs some familiarity to smooth the process. In lieu of cultural familiarity, what is there to help one through?
A Celtic prayer helped me glimpse a potential answer:
“I sought my God, my God I could not see.
I sought my soul, my soul eluded me.
I sought my brother and I found all three.”
[The Edge of Glory, by David Adam]
We need others. We need people. Even unfamiliar people can be a source of consolation to carry us through the painful parts of life transitions.
God still feels not enough for me—at the moment. I feel small in saying that, but His largeness compensates for my smallness. Out of His kindness He has provided pools of water in this desert: heart-friends on FaceTime, my therapist, and beautiful people here in East Texas who reach out to me with friendship in small and big ways. I often think my life is held together by the prayers and kindnesses of others.
In all these, I find God, even if I do not always recognize Him at first.
Question to consider: A Celtic prayer helped Anne when she felt like God was not enough. What things have helped you?